It’s safe to say that relations between Qatar and its powerful Arab neighbors aren’t exactly great right now. The reasons behind their rapid, recent deterioration are exceedingly complex – see here and here for a few good primers on the topic – but it appears that the tiny Gulf state’s rift with Saudi Arabia is about to reach a new low. Quite literally, in fact.
Media reports are suggesting that the Riyadh is looking at offers from at least five different engineering companies to dig a huge canal along the border between the two nations. Currently a peninsula, the so-called Salwa Mega Marine Canal project aims to dig a colossal 61-kilometer-long (38-mile), 201-meter-across (660-foot), 20-meter-deep (65-foot) trench that’ll make Qatar an island.
A final decision on the company bids will be made in September. Then, the digging shall commence, although it’s not clear how they’ll go about doing it – both in terms of how it’ll be physically engineered and how they’ll get it done without Qatar attempting to intervene.
It’s not like it’s impossible, though. Humans aren’t great at plenty of things, but when we put our minds to it – for benevolent or malevolent reasons – we are pretty good at building giant constructs. All you need to do is look at China’s Three Gorges Dam, London’s Crossrail rail network project, or the reams of artificial islands around the world to remind yourself of that fact.
Either way, Bloomberg – citing regional newspapers and unidentified sources – reported that the still ambitious project will take just a single year to complete. As noted perhaps most eloquently by Vox, this will turn “an existing political rift between the two countries into a physical fact.”
The New York Times pointed out that some reports have suggested that the ditch will be filled with nuclear waste, but this hasn’t been verified at all at present by the looks of things. In any case, investing $750 million with the United Arab Emirates in this over-the-top scheme is as clear a sign as any of how grim things have got in the region.
Back in June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain declared that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar while a list of 13 demands remained unmet. A blockade of all incoming and outgoing transportation was also issued. Multiple other regional countries have since joined the isolationist efforts against Qatar.
Again, the reasons are multifaceted, but Qatar’s relations with Iran – a major adversary to Saudi Arabia and with whom Qatar shares a massive natural gas field with – is often cited. In addition, its state-funded, globally influential Al Jazeera news group, and its support (alleged or otherwise) of certain extremist factions are also referred to as primary drivers of the currently cold conflict brewing here.
Being a small nation, you’d expect that being so isolated in the region would have brought it crashing down by now, but largely thanks to its abundant fossil fuel reserves – and the presence of the region’s most expansive US military base – it has managed to weather the storm to date. Food aid from Turkey and Iran, sent by air and sea, have also helped prop it up.
In fact, as noted by the Guardian, the US – which is allies with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia – wants tensions to diffuse in case it brings Iran and Qatar closer together.
Having Saudi Arabia transform Qatar into a literal island, then, will hardly help matters.